Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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8 Sep 2009

Responding to Ted Trainer’s Friendly Criticism of Transition

trainerTed Trainer (right, author of, among other things, the utterly indispensible ‘Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society’ just published a long and detailed piece which offers his thoughts on the Transition movement.  He sent me an earlier draft which I, in return, sent him some detailed thoughts on.  Given that the final published piece didn’t seem to take on many of the points I sent, the comments I wrote still stand as a response to it, and I offer them below in the hope that they offer a reasonable companion to Trainer’s considered piece.

Dear Ted,

My sense is that ultimately we agree on most things, just where we might part company is on where to be most skilful in applying our energy in order to make it happen, and in particular on the way in which to engage with other people who don’t look at the world in the way in which we do.  The first thing I wanted to pick up on was some of the language you use, which we try very hard to avoid in Transition.  You write that “people will come across to join us”, and “people will see that they must either take up our examples or starve”.  My sense has been that for years, in the green movement, we have held just that kind of thinking, that we are right, that everyone else is wrong or misguided, that we have the answers if only people weren’t too stupid to see them.  This kind of thinking has really been encapsulated for me in the film title, “The Age of Stupid” and its ‘Not Stupid’ campaign (I think since I wrote this letter that that campaign has since morphed into the far better 10:10).  For me, the most fascinating areas looking at this now, such as Tom Crompton and Tim Kasser’s forthcoming ‘Identity Campaigning’ paper, see it as being much more complex, that we are all a mass of contradictions, compromises, complexities and core values.

I don’t see the nature of the challenge in quite the way I get the impression you do. I don’t think that we (i.e. the green movement) have all the answers, and that it is just a case of getting everyone else to see how right we are.  Many of the answers we need are to be found in people who we might, in a more judgemental moment, see as being part of the ‘system’.  In my town, there are business people, lawyers, church groups, local history groups, and thousands of ordinary people with busy lives, bills to pay and children to raise.  Many of them may be keen on some aspects of Transition but not others, many have never heard of it, and some don’t care, and many of them have feet in both camps.  Does that make them stupid, or in need of ‘our example’?  What is important, it seems to me, is that we get people to become healthy manifestations of wherever they are at… in fact in my view it is not a case of people “taking up our examples or starving”, rather that unless we, as a small minority with some good and powerful ideas, learn to engage respectfully and creatively with that mainstream, we will starve too.

Your statement that ‘only an anarchist form of government’ could ever be successful also caused me great alarm. Who’s to say? As a starting position, to wear such a position on one’s sleeve is a great way of having absolutely no-one else other than anarchists get engaged at all. I can’t say what would be the best form of government, but I do know that whatever it is, it has to be one that the majority of people in the community want, and creating that requires a great deal more humility and openness than a starting position that one form of governance is right, and anything else, whatever it is, is wrong.

To go through a couple of your concerns.  Firstly the one about Transition initiatives building ‘havens’, insulating themselves from the rest of the world, and seeing that building their own resilience is enough.  I haven’t met a single person actively involved in transition who sees it like that, indeed that is part of the reason Transition Network was established, as a way of making sure that people saw that it was not enough for just one town to do this.  I must challenge though your point that unless Transition initiatives make explicit the fact that they are about the end of capitalist/consumer culture they will be doomed to failure.  I disagree.  There is, it seems to me, a key tension between what is made explicit in Transition and what is kept implicit.

We are often criticised, like in the Trapese Collective document about Transition, for not starting out with an explicit position that capitalism has to go before we can do anything.  My sense is that, if we are to actually engage people on the scale necessary, making an explicit position about capitalism and consumerism is the best way to fall at the first hurdle.  You write; “it is to do with developing town economic self-sufficiency.  The supreme need is for us to build a radically new economy within our town, and then for us to run it to meet our needs”.  Indeed.  But that is a huge task, and one that needs a large proportion of the town onside.  I have long felt that in the green movement we have lost any perspective as to how we come across to those we need to bring onside.  Making our starting point that we want to see the end to capitalism and consumerism will alienate our work from the business community, from those whose livelihoods depend on those businesses, and local government, all key players.  It would sideline Transition into just the kind of impotence that you fear would arise from its not doing so.  Surely we can be more skilful than that?

Further, this is absolutely not to imply that we have a subtle and secret master (mistress?) plan behind the scenes to which we’re working. It simply means that when we talk about (for example) economic growth, consumption and globalised trade we seek to do so in a way which invites people who might well disagree with us on some or all of these issues to see other benefits from joint working.

Transition does a great deal of thinking about how it relates to power structures. This was indicated, in part, in the visit to the 2009 Transition Network conference by UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who was invited as a ‘keynote listener’, and who did just that, came and listened. For me, one of the goals, of Transition Network in particular, is a broadening of the understanding of the concept of resilience. We discussed for a while here how Transition Network might best participate in the upcoming elections here, given that we have long taken an avowedly non party political stance, how it might relate to power structures. We feel that part of our role, at least, is to put forward a strong vision of what resilience means in a positive sense, and in a way that addresses peak oil and climate change. There is an increasing talk about resilience in Government circles, but at present it can be used as easily to justify mass immunisation and ID cards as local food and decentralised energy.. the key point being resilient-to-what? If we’ve enabled a serious discussion of this concept across the political spectrum in the run up to the election, then we feel that we’re sowing potentially extremely useful beginnings of changes in the way many people think about the world. You might also be interested in the attached paper by someone active in transition, which offers an individual perspective on how transition could engage with power structures.

To me, part of the power of the Transition argument is that it doesn’t start with a belief that growth, capitalism, whatever, are morally bankrupt and ethically malevolent.  Rather, I argue that in the light of peak oil and the economic meltdown, their implosion is inevitable and that we need to engage the same creative thinking that got us to this point in designing a new approach.  In conversations we have with local authorities, we say that if they actually want to meet their goals of affordable housing, cutting carbon emissions, creating local businesses and so on, with a business-as-usual approach, they are all unachievable.  With a Transition approach, looking at local businesses, local materials, building local resilience, they can achieve most of those aims (apart from the economic growth ones!!).

So when you write that Transition “must… make sure the movement is explicitly, consciously and primarily about nothing else than contributing to a global transition away from consumer – capitalist society”, I find myself torn.  Ultimately you are right, but I think if it is “explicitly, consciously and primarily” about that, it will find itself stuck in a ghetto of its own making, ranting (or at least being perceived by many or most people as ranting) about how nobody understands, and when will everyone see the error of their ways and come over to “the rightside”.  Any approach which came close to being like that would deeply deeply concern me.  I am taken with the idea of Transition coming in under the radar, and my experience is that the people who are picking it up and running with it are, in many cases, not people with a long background in anti capitalist work, but just people who often perceive themselves as apolitical and are taken by the vision of the whole thing.

You also state that you feel that Transition doesn’t give enough guidance.  There is a fine line here.  We see Transition as a catalyst, something people start and then projects and initiatives emerge.  We are keen to not be prescriptive, and as a result, Transition looks different in all the places it starts.  We see our role as being more to gather the successes and failures of projects and to link to people already doing things so that wheels aren’t reinvented.  We are doing a series of books, ‘The Transition Guide to…’ which do just that, the food one will be out soon.  You refer to Transition as being a ‘procedure’.. we see it more as a ‘process’.. the Transition Training is very much about seeing Transition as a process, one that works on both inner and outer levels, and for many that is the power of it.

Also, one brief point, I wouldn’t hold the Kinsale EDAP up as an exemplar of Transition, it was a student project done 5 years ago, before we even thought of the Transition idea… it is largely a collection of ideas.  In terms of your take on local economies, “the Transition movement will come to nothing if it does not set itself to build such economies”, that is a core aim of many Transition projects.  Your model of the Community Development Co-op is very similar to what a number of Transition initiatives are looking at doing, in their own different ways.  In fact I would argue that the Transition initiative itself, in working through the 12 steps and building up to doing its EDAP, will inevitably start doing some of the things you set out as things a CDC should do.  Once that EDAP is created, then the initiative might well decide that it should become a development company like you have outlined – or it might seek to find some other way or ways of setting out to catalyse the town to take up some of its findings and suggestions.

We feel that EDAP process is vital though, as it offers, in permaculture terms, a design to work from as well as a process which gets people to work together in building their understanding of what a resilient community would feel like.  I feel that what you set out as being the things that CDC should do are very tricky for an unfunded volunteer organisation – when designing such an organisation, given the power of the status quo, we have to be as inviting as we can in terms of what is achievable… many people would look at the list as you set it out and think they haven’t a hope of achieving that.  However, there is very little difference between what you set out as being desirable for such an organisation, and what Transition groups are actually doing.

In terms of the section on local currencies, 2 quick points.  Firstly, these are all experimental, and no-one claims to have yet created the ideal model. … secondly, you state that just issuing a local currency will make no significant difference…. you may be right, but you underestimate, I think, the potential of a well-designed local currency scheme as an awareness raising tool that can start to get people asking all kinds of questions about money and our relationship to it.  It is, in effect, mindful money, and we rarely take into account the impacts of that.  You might be interested to know though that we’re already talking to some transition initiatives and potential partners about other, wider, ways of looking at money and local economies.

With many thanks for raising these points, and with gratitude for all your great work.

(With thanks and apologies to whoever it was on Flickr whose picture of Ted, presumably in his garden, I have shamelessly plundered for the above image).

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


8 Sep 8:56am

Amen !

Brendan Barrett
8 Sep 9:59am

Dear Rob,

I think Ted makes an interesting point when he states that:

“The website, the handbook and especially the 12 Steps document are valuable, but they are predominantly about procedure and it is remarkably difficult to find clear guidance as to what the sub-goals of the movement are, the actual structures and systems and projects that we should be trying to undertake if our town is to achieve transition or resilience.”

Isn’t that a problem that the “green movement” often faces ….. stuck at the start line with how to books and pilot projects? How do you go beyond this to bring about deeper changes?

[…] Go here to read the rest: Responding to Ted Trainer's Friendly Criticism of Transition … […]

Keith Hebden
8 Sep 12:12pm

When I read The Transition Handbook I was excited because it seemed to me implicitly anarchic. In that it decentralised decision making and empowered local communities. But as someone who uses the word ‘anarchism’ confidently I know it can put up unnecessary barriers as can ‘anti-capitalism’. Not only that we can take on these labels and expect them to purge us of our own complicity without any need for action (Faith without works). So thank you for your measured response to the report. I suppose I’d better read the report too!

Brad K.
8 Sep 12:28pm

I find it difficult to consider that any endeavor with a unifying concept – transition – should result in anarchic government.

Where a community or state agrees with an underlying premise, I can see where anything from democracy or republic to feudalism, dictatorship, monarchy, presbyter, theocracy or empire would serve.

I would think that anarchy, as ever, would create a power vacuum that would find some way to drive to organization – whether through organized consensus, resolved through conflict, or a compelling organization or individual arising from within.

Marcin Gerwin
8 Sep 1:20pm

The form of governance that Ted Trainer described in his article is simply democracy. Rob has a good point, though, that using the word “anarchy” would be a public relations disaster 🙂 However, the change in governance from corporate-run democracy to people-make-decisions-for-themselves democracy is as important as transition from global, industrial food system to local, organic farms.

For those interested in democracy I strongly recommend a fascinating book “Exemplar of Liberty” about the origins of democracy in North America:

I see democracy as the key issue of Transition, and in Sopot (Poland) we have modified the Transition methodology and we’re starting from promoting participatory democracy. The reason for doing so is to engage all citizens of our city, to have influence on decision making and… on budget spending.

8 Sep 2:30pm

Very interesting discussion raised Rob. You put your finger on what I call “The Environmentalists’ dilemma”- ie we have an important message (Powerdown!) that no-one wants to hear (otherwise they would have already heard it and taken it on board)- so how do we get the message out there? I think Transition has some very useful answers to how to do this, as you say, “under the radar” but I feel you shouldnt be so concerned about alienating people with a strong message- I was very surprised myself a couple of years ago when, speaking on a forum on local food, I was ever so careful not to sound like a doomer, only to be completely upstaged by Minister for Food trevor Seargent who leapt up and cheerfully announced that we should “grow our own or starve” !! people may be much more able to deal with this kind of message than you think, especially now. I also think of Holmgren’s use of the “cautionary proverbs” like “Dont put all your eggs” which you also use very well.
Regarding anarchism/democracy- for them to work well they both depend on people being educated, empowered, engaged, and having similar values- which (as alluded to in Identity Campaigning) they do not. In an increasingly multicultural society we actually have increasingly divergent ideologies and values; the values of “we are all equal and should have an equal say” are only held by one section of society and are quite incompatible with other groups (some religious ones for example)who simply dont agree with democracy or equality, never mind environmental concerns.
Cuba achieved its rapid powerdown out of necessity, but also was probably helped by a rather dictatorial socialist regime – Castro said “Do this” and it was rapidly done. A question we all maybe should ask is, at what point in social/environmental collapse do we start calling for a dictatorship, since “democracy” may prove itself just not up to the job of saving civilization? At what point do resource constraints and GW conflict with social justice issues? Surely this is already happening.

8 Sep 2:57pm

Interesting thinking all. Graham, great to read comments where we almost universally agree! Two comments… I sat at lunch yesterday at a conference of planners and Councillors next to someone v high up in the Local Government Association who told me that after the next election we were going to see at least 20-30% cuts in public spending, a new age of austerity, that people “had no idea what was going to hit them”. We were going to have to rethink lots of things taken as basic assumptions he said… making, as you said with Trevor Sargeant, my talk 30 minutes earlier about Transition seem quite restrained! I think what is coming here in terms of public spending cuts is another strong argument for strengthening local economies, one we have barely started to explore.

The other thing was about Cuba. When Roberto Perez was here, he said that people often think that Castro said “Dig!” and everyone dug. Instead, he said, actually people rushed out and started digging and initially the Government tried to stamp it out as it was all chaotic and it wasn’t involved, but in time they saw it as important and dynamic and supported it.

The problem with dictatorships is that (by definition) they generally aren’t the ones we would choose! Be great if they were… All Hail Emperor Porritt! The marching Jack/wellyboots of the Gardeners Question Time team coming to a town near you! The question of what the kind of strong governance that a safe passage back out of the climate threat would need would look like is an important one to raise. I would like to think that it could be achieved through inspiration and visionary leadership, although what has happened to Van Jones highlights the forced that get in the way of anything resembling that…. thanks for raising the question…

8 Sep 3:08pm

Fair point Rob. Perhaps the fact that Cuba was a relatively homogeneous culture relative to say the UK was a more important factor?
Of course the Cuban Gvt wanted to stop them digging- they should have been mulching!!

Sally Lever
8 Sep 8:31pm


Have just passed on the Kreativ Blogger award to your blog as a token of my gratitude for the wonderful work that you’re doing, in order to encourage my subscribers to become yours too and get active in transitioning!

P.S. Thanks for featuring “Somerset in Transition.”

Max Oakes
8 Sep 9:26pm

“people will come across to join us” yes, whats wrong with that?

The proportion of people involved in Transition is still small (5% in the most active towns). I think there is a lot of scope for a Transition movement to set a positive example of what to do in the future. There will be many people tossed into unemployment in future. Hopefully many of them will join in with allotment gardening, traveling by bike and using local currencies. Before unemployment they may not have considered any of these Transition activities. People are attracted to a positive vision.

I see Transition as having much in common with eco-villages, organic communes, self-sufficiency, diggers and dreamers but presented in a way that non-activist types can gradually join and learn from, without moving house. PR and spin is important.

If there is a danger to Transition it is that it might make people complacent. Complacent that they can stay where they are and grow enough food on their balconies. Still that’s a whole lot better that thinking they can stay where they are and drive to Tescos for ever. Its about small steps. (maybe they can grow enough food on their balconies)

Myself I’m hedging my bets. I’m building up my own rural self-sufficiency lifestyle while taking small steps to engage a very conservative local community, (who are doing very well on record cattle prices and low interest rates). And I moved out of the city.

You can gain a lot of credibility by making true predictions about oil prices or public spending, but if the immediate threat is credit crunch and unemployment you get forgotten. Getting folks to understand the links is the trick.

I agree public spending cuts are coming that will make your eyes water. UK tax-take is down 20% year on year, nothing will be sacred. The recession is just starting. Time to get gardening.

9 Sep 4:05am

“no-one claims to have yet created the ideal model.”

Jct: John the Banking Systems Engineer has. It’s the UNILETS time-based currency to restructure the global financial architecture from the Millennium Declaration Resolution C6 to governments. It’s poker chips with people’s time accepted as collateral with other valuables.
What’s hard? That’s why it can be ideal.
And someone has been loudly claiming the ideal. You just haven’t been reading the right stuff.

Brad K.
9 Sep 4:17am


Actually, I like the system SF author Christopher Stasheff contrived for his novel “A Company of Stars”. The kilowatt hour is the accepted unit of currency, used about like a gold standard would be. The 36.36 BTU in change for each “kwaher”. The claim is made that the kwaher could be acceptable, redeemable, and difficult to degrade.

Mari Shackell
9 Sep 9:10am

Ted Trainer’s Friendly Criticism of Transition reminds me somewhat of the Irishman who, when asked the way to Dublin, replied “If I wanted to go there I wouldn’t start here.” And, judging by Ted’s apparently vast garden (eat your heart out, your average UK urbanite), he isn’t.

This article focuses very strongly on localised, community-based economic models and a downshifted lifestyle. Nothing wrong with that, so far as it goes. However,looking at the broader picture, we are not only in communities but also members of regional, national and international communities and economies, facts which we cannot ignore.

Whereas local communities may work fine for the goods and services Ted talks about, what happens about other infrastructures of our society such as health care, education, communications and media, public transport, legal structures, policing and government – to name but a few?

So far, to my knowledge, no working alternative to consumer-capitalism has yet been found. This is not to condone consumer-capitalism – far from it – but I fail to see how anarchy can ever be a working model. Are there any instances of it working?

Another point Ted fails to address is the ever-present elephant in the room with its insatiable hunger – i.e. population growth.
Frugal self-sufficient collectivism is something people may adopt either through choice or necessity. There are a few who choose it but I feel this is unikely to spontaneously become the norm any time soon.

I agree with Ted that a vast and radical change is needed to our system but think that this will only come about through changes of awareness in people’s minds. To be really effective and believed-in, this change must happen first at an individual level, from the ground up, by understanding the need for such a change. The task before us at this stage is still very largely in helping to bring this understanding about.

We have to start from where we are. I think this is what the Transition Movement is doing.

9 Sep 10:25am

Well done Rob. This was I think an adequate response to Ted. A fewmore comments, if I may:

“only an anarchist form of government’ could ever be successful”, dictatorship, Cuba….I am not sure that it would help go along with that labels or another because that would be put some off. In any case, labels are relative hence mean different things for different people.

Same for discourses related to capitalism, global economy, power structure, global transition away from consumer …….I do agree with Rob on this as well. Moreover it is believe that Nature itself will set things straight, hopefully soon.

Ted talks mainly about oil peak. I think that TT is right to combine it with climate change and start seeing things holistically as fuel has create climate changes. These two threats should inform us towards ….”resilience and low carbon development. .

Ted and other state that “sub-goals of the movement, the actual structures and systems and projects that we should be trying to undertake” should be better defined.

I do completely agree with Rob, who sees TT “as a catalyst, something people start and then projects and initiatives emerge. We are keen to not be prescriptive, and as a result, Transition looks different in all the places it starts”. One can not prescribe in this case as, like the power climb was, the power descent is an unchartered voyage. It is therefore my opinion that TT could simplify its role by mainly clarifying the Low carbon and related resilience rational and define these as the main goals.

They are mainly ways to kill a cat and we should not take people more stupid than they are. They will (mainly when the necessity will appear (like during war and in Cuba f.e.)) use their imagination for obtaining that goal. One has although to set a clever system for assessing if the proposed solutions are really cutting down C02 foot print or another green wash. The 12 planning steps process is therefore hopefully seen just a possible tool while resilience and low carbon are the goals that can be reached in many different ways.

Yes the problem is now, before necessity forces imagination and changes across board. I read about “participatory democracy” or “the kind of strong governance that a safe passage back out of the climate threat would need”………Both are hard to find in this day after we went wrong for so long. So many individuals don’t want to participate as they became used to be spoon fed, which leave most governments free to toy the line of global economy and capitalism.

I believe that environmental education (EE) is a way to tackle the problem. It is believed that Environmental problems are mainly caused by a dysfunctional relationship between people and their environment”. The majority of humans have gradually drifted out of touch with the natural world. Hence the environment is no longer the main framework, wherein everything should fit in but it has been pushed behind many other preoccupations. It is now the prerogative of experts. We do not relate and recognize anymore the importance of keeping it healthy for the sake and survival of the human kind. This results in unconsidered decisions, which waste natural resources and damage the environment. The Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) is increasingly made on an ad hoc basis outside an integrated development definition. Hence, it is sidetracked behind many other economical, social and political “considerations.

Besides, Developmental problems are too often looked up in an un – integrated and uncoordinated manner (e.g water, global warming, agriculture, environment, social …) studied and dealt with separately. In other words, the tendency has been lately to disregard the major environment framework which should inform development and divide the latter in various sectors, for which people became “specialized”. This has caused that most of these activities have been planned separately and unrelated sometime overlapping, hence unsustainable. “Individually, each person is not an autonomous individual but rather a self-in-Self, a distinct node in the web of nature”. Nature has also “unqualified intrinsic value, with humans having no privileged place in nature’s web. Emphasis is placed on value at holistic levels, such as populations, ecosystems, and the Earth as a whole, rather than individual entities”.

It is believed that EE about the basic of a life cycle as our developmental framework could help us a lot in this voyage toward a low carbon development.


Derek Wall
9 Sep 10:36am

I think this is very much the start of a debate, it needs to be deepened.

I am most encouraged by the changes happening in the Peruvian Amazon where the indigenous people have used non violent direct action to protect their land from being taken away by oil explorers, they need support yes and on 5th June many of them were killed by the government.

However they have consistently defeated attempts to take their land, we have something I think to learn from them.

We do need to sharpen up the strategic debate, things in the UK have been going backwards for far too long!

9 Sep 10:48am

‘anarchist form of government’ ha ha! – either an enormous dollop of irony (that everyone keeps missing) or a piece of shorthand to point to something beyond our present ken.
Having ruled out all the ‘impossibles’, sometimes one is left with the exceedingly implausible.And then we have to make it work…

9 Sep 1:10pm

“Christopher Stasheff contrived for his novel “A Company of Stars”. The kilowatt hour is the accepted unit of currency, used about like a gold standard would be.

Jct: Beautiful. Except that I don’t have a generator to provide electric power but I do have a generator to provide human power. Isn’t the humanwatt hour the better unit of currency?

Brendan Barrett
9 Sep 1:11pm

I totally agree with Derek that we are at the start of the debate and it needs to be deepened.

I am also a firm supporter of TT and the positive way it responds to peak oil and climate change. We did an article on it in May this year ( and interviewed Enomoto, one of the main proponents here in Japan. It could be the “world’s next breath.”

However, I am a little bit uncomfortable with the responses to the criticism about the lack of sub-goals, systems and projects. It is too easy to say it is a catalyst. To be honest, it is really hard to go beyond that to get into projects (except experimental pilot projects).

For instance, we don’t really know yet if we can make further headway in terms of dramatically expanding the actual projects in given locations because we don’t yet know what that would look like and the implications it would have (i.e. more formalized structures, budgets, responsibilities and so on).

What we are good at is mobilizing people around the idea and the vision, and as a result we have seen the dramatic spread of TT. So we are off to a good start (but should avoid spin if possible).

Then I think it may be useful to open up the discussion about ways in which it may be possible to embed TT a bit more deeper into each community, beyond say the 3% already active and involved. Environmental education is always important but there must be more? And there will always be the issue of how to sustain the activities.

The reason I write this is because I followed the development of Local Agenda 21 from 1992 onwards. The naming was awful but nevertheless it did spread across the globe to thousands of communities. However, they appeared to get stuck at the vision and talking stage, so they re-named it Local Action 21 in 2002. Then it seemed to disappear.

Perhaps after so long people lost energy, leaders moved on, other new ideas came along. Or maybe, it was at the shift from the catalytic vision stage to the concrete projects that things broke down. There are always some initial successes but they are hard to sustain.

This just my reflection on what happened with another environmental initiative and why I was struck by Ted’s comment and Rob’s response. Why would is it so difficult to maintain environmental initiatives versus everything else we do? How could TT be different?

I like the story from Mari about the way to Dublin. I was wondering whether Ted was asking the question – what is Dublin like and why would I go there? Or perhaps, how would you recommend I go there, walking, riding a horse, by bicycle, by car, take the train, or fly? At which, the reply so far seems to be: “Doesn’t matter just as long as you start the journey.” 🙂

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9 Sep 7:47pm

Hi Kudos to Rob for recognizing Ted and responding. I was inspired by Ted’s vision because I’ve never seen a vision outlined that concretely, what might happen first etc. As an old hippie who’d been self-educating for some 40 years the thoughts of being a catalyst, educating, and gradually growing numbers feel like what well-meaning people have been doing for a long time, while the global economy hsa continued to grow around and through them (through because even if we wash our plastic bags we’re heating the water to do it with with pollution causers).

I appreciate Ted Trainer’s thinking about steps to a local economy. Strip out the offensive words like anarchy and call it deep or local democracy (which it seems to me it is), and any blame of those who aren’t on board. But to start building locally, as opposed to mainly self-educating (and largely online) fails to address the seriousness and urgency of our moment. And Ted’s strong language is an indispensable call to local action, the strength of which Rob mentions off the top. Blessings!

Claire Milne
9 Sep 8:03pm

Ah Rob, thank you for, as ever, modelling the essence and compassion that we all have so much to learn from.

With my campaigning background and inherent frustration with the injustice our consumerist world seems to exhibit, I find it so easy to fall into the trap of wanting Transition to be more explicitly critical of the current status quo. However, as each beautiful day goes by I become more and more convinced that very little, if any change will come about by criticizing people and the companies they have come to rely on for their self-esteem and identity.

By shouting about how awful our capitalist / consumerist world is, we do a grand job of disempowering people – simply making them feel pretty rubbish about themselves – a state unlikely to inspire positive change.

The Transition movement is so inspiring in that rather than wasting its energy on the problems, it simply focuses on the positive solutions.

The important dynamic here is between Transition and other social movements. Bring on the nurturing of synergies between the global social justice movement and Transition. There is much to be gained by cross-fertilizing our country’s tireless campaigners and activists with Transition’s rapidly growing number of ‘doers’ – who are increasingly emphasizing the importance of heart and soul within our efforts for social change.

So many campaigners are itching to get stuck into more positive solutions and so many Transitioners are ripe to learn more about how their lifestyles impact on the Global South.

It would seem that people need to start to feel okay about themselves and their own lives before they are likely to become motivated to make a difference in the lives or others and / or future generations.

So here’s a call for us all to touch everyone’s lives with love, compassion, gratitude and acceptance whilst peacefully and compassionately educating about the injustices our current lifestyles perpetuate.

9 Sep 9:20pm

Sorry 2nd last sentence doesn’t make sense . . . should say, “But education alone fails to address the seriousness and urgency of our moment.”

9 Sep 10:12pm

When I read Ted’s “friendly criticism” of transition I thought to myself here we go again, overthrow the system, defeat capitalism, man the barricades etc. As someone from outside the “green enclave” I felt threatened by what Ted was suggesting.

The transition process, and that is basically all it is a process, offers a more positive alternative to changing the way we live than the 60s&70s style “overthrow the system” approach.

What attracts me to it is the vision it offers in restablishing the connection with community. The vast majority of us from outside the “green system” see the traditional green protest approach as a threat to the way we have lived/live.

I firmly believe the “new product” we have in the transition movement offers the majority in the “consumer system” a much more powerful solution to the threats we are all facing.

10 Sep 12:13pm

I think rather than “anarchism” Ted may prefer to use “small state libertarianism”.

Basically I am with him in suggesting a future which is the opposite of what we are likely to get if we don’t all stand up and take responsibility and instead let government look after us in a post peak oil world – Tyranny.

At the end of the day, we could branch in two political directions upon collapse.
1. Freedom (reduced size of the state, local economies, in line with the Transition Town movement)
2. Tyranny (large state, command economy taking control of society in a time of chaos).

Whilst not wishing to call for “anarchy”, I would very much prefer the freedom option thank you very much!
This is where Ted’s criticism is valid. There are some points which are missed in the handbook about money. Restoring an honest money system (one which is not backed by national central bank controlled fiat) will be essential to the longevity of movement I feel. Whether this is local currencies backed by gold, barter systems, or by promises to pay can be up to the locals!

What matters is that we unhook ourselves from the completely unsustainable debt based money system. Paul Grignon describes this very well in his “Money As Debt” presentations here:

12 Sep 5:57am

“What matters is that we unhook ourselves from the completely unsustainable debt based money system. Paul Grignon describes this very well in his “Money As Debt” presentations here:

Jct: His video gets P/(P+I) the first part of the derivation of the Miracle Equation I/(P+I) for minimum Shift B inflation and involuntary Unemployment.
But it’s wrong to be blaming the malfunction on the fact currency is based on debt. See my video “Debt Money Good” at youtube.

[…] Rob Hopkins, founder of Transition Culture, is as always, thoughtful in his response. […]

12 Sep 12:51pm

Wow, there is a really interesting discussion here! I’ve read both texts and want to make some comments on them.

When Rob says that:

I must challenge though your point that unless Transition initiatives make explicit the fact that they are about the end of capitalist/consumer culture they will be doomed to failure. I disagree.


My sense is that, if we are to actually engage people on the scale necessary, making an explicit position about capitalism and consumerism is the best way to fall at the first hurdle.

but then says:

To me, part of the power of the Transition argument is that it doesn’t start with a belief that growth, capitalism, whatever, are morally bankrupt and ethically malevolent. Rather, I argue that in the light of peak oil and the economic meltdown, their implosion is inevitable

it might sound a little contradiction. Implosion inevitable? So, you must tell that they are not the way, and to be left ASAP! That’s not *anti*-capitalist?

I understand Ted’s position and Rob’s too. And I think there’s a possible point of balance: not to talk about anti-capitalism but *post*-capitalism. It means: no saying “no” to Capitalism as being unjust, but saying “no” to Capitalism as being a wrecking Titanic which can takes us all down to the bottom if you don’t get out of the sinking ship.

If Transition is needed is because business-as-usual is a civilizational and ecological cul-de-sac. And business-as-usual is also know as Capitalism.

Also, growth (as Capitalism defines it) is impossible without growing of energy consumption. So TT movement must recognize that growing is impossible in the medium-long run, and that as a (eco)logical result, Capitalism is no longer possible. Second Law of Thermodynamics – you all know!

Our organization in Galicia explicitly defines itself as anti-capitalist and that has not being an obstacle to join with local authorities to make non-capitalist work. Indeed, there will be a point in all Transition projects when capitalists and non/anti/post-capitalists visions will collide. Business as usual (a.k.a. The System) can tolerate up to certain point a non-usual work. But there’s always a point at which capitalists interests will enter the scene and stop those works. Let’s not be so naive to think they don’t. So, taking that in mind, I understand Ted’s concerns.

12 Sep 1:02pm

In the end it’s all about communication strategies, of course. We must learn from the past (all the workers’ struggle since the 19th century, and the sexties and the ecologist movement…) and I think Rob’s approach is more realistic than Ted’s in that area.

But he also must recognize that “sustainable local forms of government” should be another task-force in any transition town, and that those groups would inevitably talk about direct democracy, citizen assemblies and anarchism. You want to take business people and traditional political parties into the process, but why not anarchists, communists and radical democrats? Will be they kep apart as with fascists?

And if we can rationally recognize that this economic system is not sustainable, must also agree that the political system which allowed it and grew with it and depends on it… is no longer sustainable. You can’t hide it all the timne, Rob. There’s a missing political wing in Transition Movement, I think, not to take the flag of Anarchism or Communism or Socialism or whatever, but to allow the debate also in this field, to look for future forms of government as well as for future forms of feeding, housing, working, living… Politics is a fundamental part of social life, don’t please forget it.

12 Sep 1:08pm

Graham, when you say:

I also think of Holmgren’s use of the “cautionary proverbs” like “Dont put all your eggs” which you also use very well.

I think you’re giving a brillant hint for that communicational dilemma.

Our organization is named after a Galician proverb of that kind which could be translated as: “Days of much, Eve of nothing”. 😉

Andrew MacDonald
12 Sep 4:17pm

Appreciate this discussion and the voices herein.

I’ve always found communist rhetoric deeply stuck in a past, and anarcho-talk (admittedly I’ve seen little) also hearkening back to Bakunin or something equally antiquated. But what we’re talking about here is as current as the jam on my toast . . . or would that be currant?

All these terms just get our own knickers in knots and nots. They sidetrack us. In one of my lives I had a bunch of hypnosis training, and I know how quickly we lose someone when we throw a loaded term at the train of thought.

Let’s describe what we’re actually trying to do locally and forget describing it in traditional terms. It may have some referrants (especially in Spain I understand Manoel), but essentially building the new now really is a new endeavour because the context of climate change and collapse is utterly new and unprecedented. All our old terms just bore people, distract them from realizing whats happening now, and makes them think we’re stuck in the past – which in large part we are. It’s hard for anyone to realize the depths (or heights?)of the challenge we have.


Brad K.
12 Sep 4:38pm

Apparently I think of capitalism at the personal, local level, and think, Hmm, this is a good thing, and likely to continue. When you talk about governments managing a capitalist economy, then, yep, post-capitalism is likely descriptive.

As governments lose the ability to leverage gestalt economic factors, as the economy collapses.

Yet between my neighbors and myself, between me and the dude that buys my hay – or between me and the lady teaching my kid to play piano for two dozen eggs a week – I will still call that capitalism. Maybe decentralized capitalism.

Because my imaginings of a thug, an elected official, or a commune “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” doesn’t inspire me with hope. Authoritarian economics work between me and my dependents. All others pay cash. Or barter, whatever.

I wonder that we can discuss localization, yet not consider the relationships between locales local or remote. The best I imagine would be for most to recall preceding national laws, economies, and make as few adjustments as possible, from a vestige of national identity and habit.

Whether cash remains in general use or slips away, at least initially the memory of comparable values will affect post-event transactions – and bargaining.

The spectre of disjoint local economies bothers me, not a need to replace the capitalist separation of authority from asset allocation. Or perhaps what I think of as decentralized capitalism is simply private ownership of the means of production. Capitalism.

13 Sep 1:55pm

‘Your statement that ‘only an anarchist form of government’ could ever be successful also caused me great alarm. Who’s to say? As a starting position, to wear such a position on one’s sleeve is a great way of having absolutely no-one else other than anarchists get engaged at all. I can’t say what would be the best form of government, but I do know that whatever it is, it has to be one that the majority of people in the community want, and creating that requires a great deal more humility and openness than a starting position that one form of governance is right, and anything else, whatever it is, is wrong.’

What Ted said was ‘Thus, only an anarchist form of government could work’, not ‘could ever be successful’. Ever is a long time and success means different things to different people… Sorry to be pedantic but poetic licence doesn’t serve an honest discussion.

‘Who’s to say?’ Well, perhaps he should have prefaced his remark with ‘in my humble opinion’. Anyone can of course have an opinion on what form of government would work best. It is not something that can be ‘known’ since it clearly is an opinion rather than some kind of scientific fact. So the answer to ‘Who is to say?’ is – anyone with an opinion. I don’t understand why someone having an opinion on what form of organization would work best would cause anyone ‘great alarm’. If he had expressed the position that representative democracy and capitalism were the best form of government would that have alarmed you?

You are absolutely right that using political terms like anti-capitalism or anarchism petrify people and I agree that they are no place to start. They do ensure almost complete lack of engagement. They simply trigger frames of chaos, violence, disorganization and all the rest (as evidenced by a couple of the comments on this thread) which are impervious to information or argument.

As for openness, to me that means understanding where people with a different opinion are coming from, why they hold that opinion. It does not mean that you must have no opinion yourself, that you don’t express it, or that you cannot disagree with the other person’s opinion. It is perfectly possible to believe that an anarchist society would be the best form for a post peak oil, sustainable world, while remaining ‘open’ to other peoples’ beliefs in that way. It’s not a symptom of pride to have an opinion as to what will or won’t work. Nor does it mean that a person is closed-minded. So the call for more humility and open-mindedness is misplaced.

You are applying concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ to forms of organizing society. Ted’s opinion was that one form would ‘work’ (in creating a sustainable and peaceful future society) and by implication that others would not. That is not the same thing as holding one system to be morally right and the other wrong. To me, those terms make no sense in trying to understand why society works in a certain way and how it might work under different circumstances. You have conflated concepts of effectiveness (what ‘works’ based on certain criteria) with subjective moral concepts, which is something that Ted didn’t do.

Finally, you refer to the WWF’s Identity Campaigning. Chris Rose has a good critique of that approach here:

What’s interesting about the idea of Values Modes is that they talk about values in a different way to, say, the WWF and many other environmental groups. Values Modes understands values as unmet needs which drive behaviour which in turn drives opinion. If they are understood in that way then it changes the conversation about why people behave in a certain way or hold certain opinions. It makes it clear why attempts to change people’s values won’t work until their underlying needs are met. And also that the framework of behavioural choices open to those with different values or needs varies depending on the society they live in as does the ease or difficulty with which they can meet their needs and therefore change values.

Will S.
15 Sep 2:14am

It’s easy for one to see a rapidly growing movement that’s headed in a direction slightly different direction, and to criticize it for not being what one wants it to be. I’d say the efforts and results Rob and friends have made are to be commended. Constructive criticism can always be helpful, though opinionated musings often are not.

I also believe that the Handbook is correct not to be prescriptive. Each community has it’s own character and challenges, and smart people need to creatively brainstorm, decide, and take ownership of any particular approaches they find to be feasible. There are mountains of good ideas out there, let each pick and choose to their liking. Trying to force one system on everyone smacks of a take-over; no one wants to be induced to make a choice they disagree with. Individual property ownership existed before successfully, and I have no doubt it will in the future as well. When a crisis arises in a collective system without firm authoritarian rule, the best that could happen is Tragedy of the Commons, and the worse would be chaotic anarchy. I don’t find either of those attractive.

Also, traction is under-appreciated by some; turning people off is no way to get them moving in the right direction. If Ted’s approach works for some, let’s see the result on a town level.

[…] “The Transition Towns Movement: its huge significance, and a friendly criticism”, and my subsequent response. Ted subsequently sent some more detailed thoughts, and has since rewritten his piece, which you […]

9 Feb 6:09am

I think the wishy-washiness that comes from Rob Hopkins is interesting. I imagine Rob sees himself in the role of a politician. That’s not a slight. I find it interesting. . . not “interesting” with a demeaning tone (just to be clear, because this is text). I think the noncommittal generalist viewpoint goes for the numbers and popularity, not for the accuracy. The very positive side of the more broad stroke vision is that it can bring in more people, those who are high-commitment and those who are low-commitment oriented. It can bring in different political stances, as well.

In Rob Hopkins’ attempts to sell the Transition Movement as a popular one, he may loose the accuracy that those working in the edges have, pushing the bar higher and leading the way. A politician works with spin. Spin is not an evil, and it is not used only by corrupt politicians and CEO’s. Spin can be honest. It becomes dishonest when lies are interjected or there is omission. Unfortunately, I think Rob is putting a foot into the realm of omission here, in order to keep popularity. Some people might not want to hear about the scarier elements to energy decent, economic decent, and climate change, because it may sound too “scary” and “doom-and-gloom”. There are realities, though, and to omit them, I feel, is dangerous and irresponsible. The facts themselves are not “scary” or “doom-and-gloom”; those are our reactions. Capitalism, or monetarism, is mathematically impossible in a continual energy decent. It’s simple math called the exponential function. Government based off of money and taxes, is also mathematically impossible. Hierarchy in grand scale, itself, is unsustainable in a contracting economy. I very much agree with the statement that Transition “must… make sure the movement is explicitly, consciously and primarily about nothing else than contributing to a global transition away from consumer – capitalist society”, and I find Rob’s reply interesting – “Ultimately you are right, but I think if it is “explicitly, consciously and primarily” about that, it will find itself stuck in a ghetto of its own making, ranting (or at least being perceived by many or most people as ranting) about how nobody understands, and when will everyone see the error of their ways and come over to “the rightside”.” He agrees to the content, but puts down the viewpoint demeaningly, at the same time. I believe this is a matter of PR and spin. To use terms like “anti-capitalism” is going to put people off. However, the viewpoint is accurate and necessary. So, there are other terms to use. It is much more palatable to talk about the devaluing of the dollar making money worthless in an energy decent future, and how we must use economic systems which do not use money. It is accurate to say that “‘only an anarchist form of government’ could ever be successful”. However, Anarchism or the word “anti-hierarchy” are very hard sells in PR and spin terms, so use other terms like “democracy” or “participatory systems”. It would marginalize the Transition movement to name it an anarchist movement. There are so many people that agree to a democratic or participatory system, who do not consider themselves part of an anarchist movement. There is a lot to be learned from anarchist movements and anarchist thinkers (as well as many other political theorists. . . I’m only focusing on Anarchism because the articles mention it). One lesson to be learned is on local currencies. It would be useful to note the failure of the time bank system used in Spain during the Spanish Revolution.

It is important to look at our tactics within the Transition movement and figure out what works and what doesn’t, honestly. We must not focus so heavily on popularity that we dare not criticize initiatives that are not getting us where we need to be. An example would be saying that local currencies are anything more than a PR campaign for localism, or saying that local currencies will give us resiliency, is very inaccurate. This may be unpopular viewpoint within certain segments of the Transition movement, but we must specifically find what works for ourselves with a critical eye.

I am very glad to see someone like Rob Hopkins be wishy-washy. I’m glad I’m not in that role, but I’m glad someone’s doing it. If someone can get uncommitted people to make half-steps which help them a little bit, and may give them a heads up, that’s certainly a lot of progress, especially if he is able to do that with numbers of people.

I think the Transition movement is really what you make it. Rob Hopkins is not the Transition movement. Every local initiative can do whatever they decide to do. I’m personally more likely to find answers with those who have taken local resilience the furthest. I don’t see any current transition initiatives in that category. I think looking to political theorists like Marx, Kropotkin, or Proudhon is important. I think looking at what works and doesn’t work about Parecon can be useful. I think looking at effective participatory decision-making processes like Consensus are essential. I think looking to ecovillages, survivalists, and foragers is important when looking at food security. There’s a lot already done out there. We are able to take it a lot further than a “do whatever you can” philosophy.

One more thought in my head to share. . . I was having an email conversation with someone who is active in both ecovillages and the Transition movement. He said of Rob Hopkins that he “treds the more difficult road of intentionalizing the unintentional. We [ecovillages] provide him a light at the end of the road, something to guide by.” I think this is interesting. I really like the term “intentional communities” and how it puts emphasis on the intention of the community. . . it’s own visions and goals. However, all communities are intentional communities, whether you are participating in them or not. There is a vision and goal of our state and federal governments. There are visions and goals of our spiritual communities. The difference, I see, is the participation. Presidents are elected by a minority. The majority of U.S. residents (a very large majority) do not vote. It is an even smaller minority (minuscule, if fact) that actually make decisions. The effort of intentionalizing the unintentional, or the effort of getting an individualistic society to become participatory is really a difficult (and slow moving) road. I like John Michael Greer’s thoughts on the importance of organizing and what he calls “The Cost of Community”. It is very important not to leave out the governing structures in a post-petroleum society. Without it, we’d have nothing but chaos and hierarchy.



9 Feb 8:38am

Glad to see this thread of comments still alive! 🙂

I think there’s quite a bunch of good ideas in Abe’s comment. Mainly in the fact that we should enter the ways-of-government realm without fear but with intelligence. Yet, I miss a term in Abe’s comment: “direct democracy”. If you talk to people about this you won’t be leaving anybody out as you will if you use terms like “communism”, “libertarian municipalism” ou “anarchism”. In the end only “direct” democracy is truly democractic. Most of the people can really agree on that.

Collateral to my peak-oil-awareness activism, I’m participating in a little organization which promotes direct democracy in Spain Maybe it could be useful to translate some of our texts there to English. I do believe only this kind of government could make a real Transition happen in broader scopes than the local one.

9 Feb 4:39pm

I’m glad to see this thread alive too. The edges are often where the wildlife like to live . . .

I love Ted’s stuff and am sure I’ll go back to it again. Manoel’s “direct democracy” is a much better sell / spin than anarchy though which pretty much comes with a molotov cocktail in my own imagination (we’re talking perception, not reality or course).

We’re evolving new forms here. The trick is to be creative and imaginative, and “evolved” enough to not use the same old terms or the same old forms. It’s not the same old challenge or the same old world. It’s fresh and new and today. We’re making the new world up. Let’s make a story that can get appeal to many.

I find lots of encouragement for this perspective in evolutionary spirituality.,

Brad K.
9 Feb 6:35pm

The form of organization most familiar to many people is the family – one or two “authority” figures and a bunch of “Shut up and be quiet” types.

One of my Junior High teachers made the heretical statement once, that “a benevolent dictator is the best form of government.” With a benevolent dictator the efficiency factor of government goes way up (benefits and security derived for the cost in assets and time). The problem is that you cannot be assured the dictator will be benevolent (to one’s way of life, I presume). And there are few ways to change your mind, once you have the dictator.

The authoritarian form, though, is awfully prevalent, from most school organizations public, private, and ad hoc.

One form that Transition hasn’t discussed where I have seen it has been feudalism, perhaps on the Polish model with a respected “right to leave.” This seems to embrace the traditional matriarchal/patriarchal form, with an element of considered allegiance.

Schools and families today already know this structure. So do gangs, militaries, and other enduring ad hoc organizations. Roberts Rules of Order would be a good place to start for protocol.

Democracy, especially “direct” democracy, is intended to be inefficient. It makes doing bad things difficult by making everything difficult to achieve. It can often be slow to react, poor at anticipating needs, and misguided. Democracy is often side-tracked and waylaid by special interests. Representative democracy addresses much of the inefficiency by reducing the communication and negotiation scale. Incorporating a well-bound but strong executive to manage things – and respond quickly when security and survival are at stake, and reserving the democratic process for strategy and policy making is one compromise US founders envisioned.

You want to be really careful, when preparing for change, how many voices are invested in selecting a direction, or directing assets and efforts. When the flood waters are rising, it might not be the time to take a voice vote for coffee, tea, or hot chocolate to go with the blankets. Someone might need to be sure that clean water gets heated.

9 Feb 7:19pm

I disagree with Brad K.’s analysis that benevolent dictatorships are more efficient. I think the opposite. The problem with this “the masses are asses” philosophy is that it ignores the information gathering and implementation stages in making decisions. Bottle-necking decisions to a small minority creates horrible bureaucracy, as anyone standing in line at a government agency, in court, or paying their taxes, knows.

If decisions are limited to a few, perspective is limited. So, decisions are much less informed. If everyone must carry out the decisions of a few, you’re going to have people dragging their feet in implementing decisions they don’t have a stake in or responsibility for.

A healthy ecosystem is one in which there are many participants with many interconnected, stacking functions. The organizational structure charts that most people are familiar with looks like a root system, with the roots leading up to the trunk. However, if a tree would replicate this structure, you’d have the trunk pulling up the nutrients from the roots and storing them, and not investing in root growth, until the top heavy tree could not hold itself up, collapses, and dies.

Participatory systems like Consensus decision-making and Quaker process are like permaculture. You might spend more time in the planning stage and less energy later on. Because the planning stage was thoughtfully looked at, there is less need to go back and revisit the planning. Top-down structures have a constant tension between those in power and those trying to achieve power. Decisions are revisited and revisited again, in the fight for power. One is the example, of the shuffle from Democrat to Republican (or whatever parties your country has) in the presidential office, and the back-and-forth decisions that result.

Large government, like a globalized economy, is not efficient. Whatever the governance structure, it would be much more efficient if made local. When looking at how to make decisions that effect larger regions, I like the bottom-up branching system the Quakers use, and the cluster/affinity group structure that many activists use. Larger regional decisions remain localized, going from the local outwards. This, I think, creates a much better cultural polyculture, than the monoculture of large top-down decision-making.

9 Feb 7:32pm

I also wanted to point out that processes like Consensus decision-making aren’t always slower in the decision-making stage. Most of that, I believe, is our cultural learning. Consensus is a second language to most of us. So, the learning curve can slow things down initially. I have seen activist groups use Consensus via cell phones during direct actions, where you have to make emergency, quick decisions. A lot of that is coming up with criteria of how and when to make decisions before hand.

9 Feb 10:29pm

Mimicking nature is the best model, finally the only one because everything else is a subset of it.

But what is nature’s model?

Might as well ask what is god, or man . . . but for our purposes, it would involve everyone being invited to be as fully participating as they can stand (one pole), and a creative way to put them beside each other so they show off each others strengths (the second). In other words, invite all diversity and find a way to arrange it so that it works well.

We’re on a big learning curve here.

Open Space technologies and World Cafes use forms like these and so does permaculture I think.